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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 23 MAY 2010 The fact that William Turner is considered by many art specialists to be the greatest British landscape painter of his generation is a fair enough assessment when one regards the extraordinary lighting effects present in his magnificent skies, sunsets and seas. But the exhibition currently showing at the Grand Palais in Paris is not concerned with merely presenting his great masterpieces, but rather with choosing one hundred paintings from the 32,300 canvases existing in the U.K. which demonstrate the influence of the grand masters on his work. His pictures were not, however, mere imitation but contained a new powerful and turbulent energy which inspired in turn great numbers of the impressionists. In studying the classics, the British artist simultaneously paved the way for a whole new movement, thus pushing along the history of art.

Small of stature and unattractive of face and character, Joseph Mallord William Turner was born in London in 1775 and was brought up by his father, a modest barber, as his mother spent most of her short life in a mental asylum. He did not like school and so from the age of around 13, he would spend his time mooching around the docksides, paper and crayons in hand, the resulting sketches, already apparently full of light, being proudly displayed in his father’s shop.

Joseph Mallord William Turner:Calais Sands, Low Water, Poissards Collecting Bait, 1830
Photo courtesy of Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, RMN

His gifts were quickly noticed, and after a short apprenticeship to the painter, Thomas Malton Junior, he was admitted to the recently established Royal Academy of Arts school at the age of 14 to follow a classical training, during the course of which it was highly recommended to copy the Masters. It was there, according to the water-colour artist, Edward Dayes, that the young Turner would borrow and assiduously copy any drawing or painting he could lay his hands on. In the absence of museums to visit, and unhappy roaming around the damp and foggy Welsh and Scottish countryside, he drew his inspiration rather from the private collections he saw and in the discovery of the works of Claude Gellée, dit le Lorrain (c. 1600 – 1682), whose works he despaired to equal. The story goes that he was moved to tears in front of Claude's L’Embarquement de la reine de Saba (1648). It was Claude, a key figure in his life, who taught him the art of constructing harmonious landscapes in ideal settings, works in which balance was all-important.

By the age of 20, with the steady sales of his water-colours, accompanied by a growing interest in oils, culminating in the luminous work, Moonlight, a study at Millbank, inspired by the Dutch landscape artists, one of his earliest oil paintings and possibly the finest work in the Paris exhibition, Turner was comfortably earning his living. The art scene in London was developing rapidly alongside the blossoming of the first museums and public exhibitions, but it was not, however, until 1802, after the signing of the treaty of Amiens which marked the end of the war between France and England, that Turner was free to journey to Europe.

Joseph Mallord William Turner: Moonlight, a study at Millbank, 1797
Photo courtesy of Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, RMN

His first stop was the famous Salon presented at the Louvre in Paris, Paris being a brilliant and dynamic artistic centre where landscape painting flourished and  where he became enthralled by the works of Watteau, Titian, and Rembrandt. It was at this time that he painted Venus and Adonis, one of his rare ‘figure’ paintings which used richer, deeper colours following his discovery of Titian’s work. It was inspired by the great Italian master’s The Death of Saint Peter Martyr, but the result is far from outstanding and scarcely merited a second glance. What it did do, was demonstrate how Turner carefully constructed his remarkable vision.

Joseph Mallord William Turner: Venus and Adonis, 1851 
Photo courtesy of Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, RMN

In the Alps, inspired by the perspectives of Poussin, he painted the mountains and even ventured into historical frescoes, creating Hannibal and his army crossing the Alps. His painting The Deluge directly inspired from the French painter’s painting of the same name, hangs side- by- side with its ancestor, completed well over a century earlier.

Accustomed to the dark and smoggy English winters, Italy proved a revelation, particularly the light Turner discovered in Venice in the September of 1819. The light, plus a more intensive study of Lorrain’s work led to a more sophisticated use of colour and a mastery of multiplane. He meandered through the narrow alleys, loitered by the bridges, palaces and churches, fascinated by the atmosphere there and the immense skies, absorbing each detail of the works of  Canaletto (1697 – 1768). It was the first of several journeys to Italy, and was where he completed, Palestrina-composition 1828 as a tribute to his sponser, Lord Egremont of Petworth, England. But the painting of the antique village of Palestrina, again far from being one of his finest works, attracted little more than a few cursory glances in Paris despite its vast sky and vaporous horizon. It hung alone in its corner.

Canaletto: The Basin of San Marco on Ascension Day, 1732.
Photo courtesy of Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, RMN

Be that as it may, the talent of William Turner  was widely recognized in his lifetime, reinforcing the impression given that he seems to have painted to suit the tastes of the time or in other words, to make money. It’s only from time to time that he breaks loose to create something new. His landscape paintings, bathed in light are phenomenal, but the moment he turned his hand to architecture and narrative scenes with nymphs and shepherds or pirates, his genius came to naught, and it wasn’t until the last decade of his life, and most particularly with Mercury is sent to admonish Aeneas, completed the year before he died, that he fully accomplished his breakthrough creation that paved the way for abstract works. He went way beyond the traditional style, dissolving shapes and forms in clouds of light.

Joseph Mallord William Turner: Palestrina-composition, 1828
Photo courtesy of Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, RMN

The success of this Paris staging, primarily for those who know and love his work,  lies in showing William Turner’s artistic development and in demonstrating how this important 19th century painter managed to create so many resolutely modern works expressing the sensation of nature while taking his own inspiration from the many paintings of the old masters.

But for those who have little interest in his work, nor for the works of his compatriots, Gainsborough and Reynolds, as being too ‘British’, too cold and too insular, it is hard to get worked up over the paintings presented here. The portraits left one cold and one recoiled from certain of his biblical subjects, including that of Pilate washing his hands, decried even by the British critics of the time. Possibly intended to be an experimental study, it seemed crude and amateur next to Rembrandt’s workshop’s, Holy Family, the night, the cradle, an emotional work which made your heart melt.  The exhibition therefore remains a curiosity, albeit a most interesting one.

Turner and the Masters was shown at the Tate Gallery, London earlier in the year, and will be presented at the Prado, Madrid, from 22 June to 19 September 2010

Turner et ses peintres (Turner and the Masters)
Through 24 May 2010
Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais 
3, avenue du Général Eisenhower
75008 Paris 
Tel: (33) 1 44 13 17 17

Patricia Boccadoro is a culture critic and senior editor at Culturekiosque.

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